It can be really difficult to make it out of the juvenile justice system, and even harder to get back on track once out. Former juvenile offenders face a variety of barriers, including education, employment and medical care, that all stack the odds against their reentry into open society.
Access to school
While in the system, juveniles do not usually have access to high-quality educational services, and many of them have no access at all. A Bureau of Justice Services survey found that 40 percent of jails provided no education services to youth, just 11 percent provided special education services, and 7 percent provided vocational training. More than half of youth in facilities have not completed eighth grade.
So returning to the education system is inherently difficult after an extended period without meaningful education of any kind. Compound this with a lack of an academic record but the presence of a criminal record, and it is not hard to see the barriers presented by the broken system. Indeed, two-thirds of youth leaving juvenile placement never return to school.
Access to employment
Finding a job is often crucial for youths who need a reliable way to support themselves after leaving the system. This is especially true if they don’t have a sufficient support system at home which may have been a factor in their detention in the first place. Further, employment has unsurprisingly been shown to decrease the likelihood of reoffending.
However, getting a job after leaving the juvenile justice system has its own challenges. Youth looking for employment generally have little-to-no job experience, may have a record and, as previously mentioned, are very likely to have dropped out of school.
One 2009 study showed that high school dropouts were half as likely to be employed as those with a college degree.
Access to health care
Many ex-juvenile offenders have mental health, medical and/or substance abuse needs before, during, and after their stint within the system. Studies indicate that almost half of all detained juveniles test positive for drug use and over two-thirds meet criteria for mental health issues. At least 75 percent have experienced traumatic victimization that could leave them further at risk for mental health disorders.
It is a common practice for states to terminate Medicaid benefits for youth once they are detained, even though there is no requirement to do this, likely because while they are detained they will be using statewide health programs for youths in facilities. After leaving the system, they must reapply to Medicaid, which can take a few months. Only 13 state Medicaid agencies and six juvenile justice agencies reenroll youth in Medicaid immediately after release.
The problem with this wait is that, according to a 2013 study in BioMed Central, it makes youths less likely to seek the mental health treatment they need. A study by the Juvenile Justice Bulletin outlined how often juveniles do not seek care because they perceive that they do not have proper access to it. The problem, thus, is ease of availability.
Considering how many of these youths are suffering from trauma and other disorders, seeking treatment can mean the difference between getting back on track and looping back around to the system. Similarly, those with substance abuse problems can easily fall back into using without proper counseling.
A lot of these issues could be resolved by supplementing the system with programs and services specifically designed to help youth transition back into society.
Some states have already taken steps to help. One example is Virginia, where the legislature adopted a set of guidelines to support youth reentry to education. This included establishing counseling, education and treatment both during and immediately after releasing a juvenile from a facility. It also required juvenile justice facility officials to make plans regarding the individual educational and other needs of each released youth, and involve families in the plans.
Fewer states have guidelines for helping youth find employment, but programs do exist. In Houston, youth exiting the system are enrolled in centers that offer advice, counseling, and job databases.
Healthcare is even more of a challenge, since it is such a common practice for states to terminate Medicaid. However, California and New York are the two states that forbid Medicaid termination for detention. There is currently a bill in the works called the At-Risk Youth Medicaid Protection Act which would allow states to suspend coverage while juveniles are detained (instead of terminating the services) and require immediate re-instating of those services after release. It is currently being considered by committee before going to Congress.
Transitioning youth back into society after the juvenile justice system is currently not enough of a priority for state governments. Youths who are improperly rehabilitated will end up dropping out of school and re-offending. Many will end up in the criminal justice system later.
Therefore, the juvenile justice system needs to be supplemented with programs that aid in the transition of youth back into society, school and employment.
It’s time to put more of an emphasis on rehabilitation in our juvenile justice system.
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